Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Killing Fields

A quick review of the recent horrors of Cambodian history. In 1975 a leader named Pol Pot came to power as head of the Khmer Rouge (Khmer is the ethnicity of Cambodians, Rouge is French for Red…as in communist). He implemented the most dramatic form of communism in recent history. He immediately abolished money, declared it Year Zero, forced everyone out of the cities and onto the farms. He decreed that they would produce twice as much rice as the previous year. He considered anyone who lived in the cities to be “new people” who were to be suspected (for not being loyal to the agrarian goals of the society) and people living as farmers to be “base people” and were superior. (Consider that many, many people had fled to the cities from the countryside because of the recent civil war.) In the following years, Cambodia exported mass amounts of rice to China while the citizens were starving. Adults and children were forced to labor for the “goals of the collective.” Intellectuals, anyone who spoke a foreign language or had a specific skill (for example, a doctor) were among the first to be executed. Children and illiterate women were “trained” in medicine for a few months and then designated the medical providers for the area. Families were disbanded and sent to work in disparate “cooperatives” across the country. Ultimate loyalty needed to be to the government and the government-created cooperative, not family.

Please be aware that the following several paragraphs contain graphic descriptions and images.

The Pol Pot regime set up several prisons, the most famous (and deadly) one being S-21 in Phnom Penh. It was formerly Tuol Sleng High School, but used for four years as an instrument of torture and death.

The nearby Choeng Ek “Killing Fields” were used to dispose of the bodies of people killed at S-21. Many others were transported by truck to the fields where their hands were tied behind their back; they kneeled at the edge of a mass grave and then were executed by axe, hoe head, bamboo rod, neck slit by sharp palm leaves, or hung from a tree. The moans of the dying people who were hung from the “Magic Tree” were broadcast across the fields to discourage others from making noise during their imminent death. Babies were killed by beating their heads against a tree. Some were not killed by the above methods, but simply thrown into the mass grave and covered in a chemical called DDT that would help them die soon after being buried alive.

Today, S-21 houses the Genocide Museum. It contains hundreds of photos and descriptions from those who survived, those who were kidnapped as children and indoctrinated to carrying out the plans of the Khmer Rouge. The history of the regime’s rise and fall is well documented. In 1979, the Vietnamese (whom the Khmer Rouge had been invading) invaded Cambodia and on January 7, 1979 took Phnom Penh. At this point, the Khmer Rouge was technically ousted. However, they did not leave the country. They continued living in the hills and organizing acts of terror through the late nineties. Up until 1993, the Khmer Rouge represented Cambodia at the United Nations because the government set up after the invasion of Vietnam was considered a “puppet government” of an external nation. The UN has now organized trials to prosecute Khmer Rouge leaders for war crimes. At this time, the trials are underway, but not nearly complete. In an infuriating turn of events, Pol Pot died a free man in 1998.

The Killing Fields house a tall building with the skulls of 8500 victims. The place today is strangely peaceful. 86 of the 126 mass graves at the site have been opened. It is estimated that 20,000 people are buried at the Choeng Ek fields. There are killing fields and mass grave sites throughout Cambodia in various states. They are still identifying new sites.

Walking around the Killing Fields thigh bones, teeth and shards of clothing are all visible in the dirt. The whole site is smaller than I would have imagined. But, the graves were often 6 meters (18 feet) deep, so the footprint didn’t need to be large.

Somewhere between 1.7 and 3 million people died, out of a population of 8 million. Conservatively, 1/4th of the population was systematically killed between 1975-1979.


Headshots of victims of Tuol Sleng.

Some of the "results" of excavating the killing fields.

Torture and death at Tuol Sleng.


Tower containing 8500 skulls.


The fields are littered with bone remains.


Today marks the 30th anniversary of the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge government (January 7, 1979). Unfortunately, the suffering is far from over.

1 comment:

Matthew and Lisa said...

Wow. I'm really not sure what else to say. You did a great job describing it all - I didn't know a lot of that.